Bridging the Gap between European Citizens & Brussels?

By Linda Piersma

Ever since the EU was diagnosed with a so-called ‘democratic deficit’, it has attempted to close the gap between the European elite and its citizens. At first, its communication policies were directed at providing information and ‘educating’ the public about Europe. However, since the mid-2000s, the EU has committed itself (in theory at least) to the idea of a true European public sphere involving genuine dialogue with its citizens.[1] Via its ‘Europe for Citizens Programme’ (EfCP), the EU now supports various external projects to stimulate this two-way relationship.[2]

A case in point is ‘Debating Europe’, a website created by the organization Friends of Europe, which seeks to stimulate a direct conversation between European citizens and their supranational politicians by connecting them on their online platform. Several of its debates are funded by the EfCP and citizens can engage in these debates by sending in questions or posting comments. Debating Europe then takes these questions to certain ‘European leaders’ like MEPs, policy-makers, academic experts or NGOs to have them respond.[3] However, does Debating Europe actually succeed in its objective of encouraging honest debate and bringing together European leaders and their citizens? How is the interactive process shaped by all these actors?

Although research on the European public sphere has come a long way since the original Habermasian understanding of the term,[4] I argue that the interaction between all these different actors asks for an approach that integrates both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Especially in current-day digital society, traditional media, political actors and citizens are all involved in the online “production, distribution, consumption and discussion of political content on issues of societal relevance.”[5] By understanding the European public sphere as a network of online and offline meaning-making,[6] it becomes possible to see the intersections between EU policies, transnational media discourses and citizens’ practices. Continue reading “Bridging the Gap between European Citizens & Brussels?”

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Online Terrorism: Radicalisation on the web

cover-from-isis-magazine-dabiq
Cover of ‘Dabiq’, an ISIS propaganda publication distributed online.

Eric Hartshorne

In my last article we discussed what terrorism is and how the Islamic State got to where they are today. A brief conclusion highlights how terrorism is a method to obtain political power by executing acts of violence directed at civilian targets with the aim of spreading fear amongst a state’s citizens. The process leading up to an act of terrorism may be  referred to as radicalization. Today, much is being made about radicalization on the Internet and how violent extremist groups are using the platform to spread their messages worldwide. This article will explore some of these narratives as well as discussing the methods in place to prevent and combat radicalization.

The use of propaganda in conflicts is nothing revolutionary, however what differentiates contemporary extremist propaganda from previous forms is the method of communication. When Al Qaida initiated their large-scale propaganda campaign in the early 2000’s they were dependent on existing media outlets to convey their messages. Rather than having to submit material to established media outlets such as Al Jazeera, today it is possible to distribute messages through an array of outlets online. What this form of communication has enabled is that violence promoting groups may spread their ideologies to an audience of proportions unheard of previously. Twitter, in 2016 alone, removed 235 000 accounts that have been deemed to be supportive and active in the distribution of terrorist-related content.

usama-bin-ladin-speaking-through-al-jazeera
Usama Bin Laden depended on mainstream media to distribute his messages.

Since the 2014 self-declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate [a form of Islamist government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world] the terrorist organisation has rapidly expanded its global propaganda campaign. At the centre of this campaign is Dabiq, the online magazine written in seven languages by IS own media outlet, Al Hayat. Dabiq aims to offer an insight into the “daily life” of the caliphate and combines gruesome images from the battleground with religious discussions and examples of IS built infrastructure. One example of this are articles where converts to the Islamic State offer “sincere words of advice” to former Christians who have converted to Islam, in turn attempting to establish a link between the terrorist group and potential recruits. Outside of Dabiq, IS have released two issues of Rumiyah – Rome – which focuses less on the theological discussions than Dabiq. In the latest issue of Rumiyah readers are offered a discussion on the psychological and practical problems one might run into before conducting a “just terror attack”. Promoting the knife as the weapon of choice, the reader is offered religious guidance aimed at legitimizing the tactic as well as a practical discussion on pros and cons of different types of knives. IS and other self-proclaimed jihadist groups have previously spread these types of “terrorist-attacks for dummies”, for those interested, instructions for bomb-making are only a few clicks away. IS also produce an Arabic newsletter, as well as French periodical Dar al-Islam.

excerpt-from-isis-magazine-rumiyah-tips-for-a-knife-attack
Excerpt from ISIS magazine ‘Rumiyah’, giving tips on how to conduct a knife attack.

In 2015 I analysed IS propaganda in comparison to Al Qaeda’s and found a clear distinction between how the two groups have presented themselves through outward directed messages. What the study revealed was that IS presented an identity in accordance with a martial role. A martial role, which is one of two aspects of Arena and Arrigo’s theory “the terrorist identity” emphasises military strength and the overwhelming sense of uniqueness within a group. This uniqueness if founded on the establishment of the caliphate and control of a geographical area. IS control of an area spanning across northern Iraq and Syria,(an area roughly the size of the UK) is a clear distinction to other self-proclaimed jihadist-groups. Although Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are active in specific areas of Somalia/Kenya and Nigeria/Cameroon/Niger/Chad respectively, these groups do not hold uncontested territories in which they are able to produces and uphold infrastructure as IS have. If you are interested in reading more about the self-presented identities of IS and Al Qaida, click here.

excerpt-from-isis-execution-video-of-american-journalist-james-foley
Excerpt from ISIS execution video of American journalist James Foley.

Nevertheless, IS have over the past two years gained recognition for the gruesome propaganda videos, which borrow influence from western culture, such as video games and movies. These videos include countless executions, decapitations, public crucifixions, the tossing of HBTQ – persons off buildings, the Jordanian pilot burnt to death in a cage, and suicide bombings. In a new study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point a group of researchers and military personnel, including leading terrorism researcher Bruce Hoffman, have examined over 9,000 official media products produced by the Islamic State. The study revealed that over 50 percent of produced media focused on issues outside the Islamic State’s borders. These issues contain walkthroughs on how to perform terrorist attacks – such as the one presented in this article –, fatwas calling for attacks against westerners, and several articles condemning and establishing their enemies as the generalizable other. However, new studies are revealing that the group’s presence on social media platforms is reducing.

Nordic Resistance Movement march in Sweden.jpg
A march in Sweden of the extremist right-wing organisation, the ‘Nordic Resistance Movement’.

However, with IS presence reducing on American social media accounts, far right extremist groups have increased by 600 percent on Twitter .Right-wing extremist groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska Motstånds Rörelsen – NMR), which is predominantly active in Sweden and Finland, presents an often overlooked threat to a nations security. In Sweden the NMR are attempting to frighten city officials and journalists. In Borlänge, the movement’s Nordic hub, officials have been greeted by their front steps covered in blood and in southern Sweden a municipal official had his car lit on fire and garage door covered with the NMR’s symbol. Meanwhile in Finland, the government is attempting to pass legislation which would enable the banning of extremist groups. The new legislation is a response to the death of a 28-year old that died of wounds he received at a NMR demonstration. If you are interested in the rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe read my colleague Sabine Volk’s insightful article on the subject.

Nevertheless, European states are actively countering extremist anti-democratic forces online and offline. Out of these anti-radicalization methods online, the use of counter-narratives is becoming increasingly popular, with the EU’s Counter-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, the latest to endorse the methods potential. However, is the hype surrounding counter-narratives justified?

excerpt-from-dabiq-showingwhat-isis-does-for-its-citizens
Excerpt from ‘Dabiq’ showcasing the supposed benefits of life under ISIS.

The counter-narrative method may be divided into three areas; direct counter-narratives, aimed directly at the messages released by extremist groups.  Alternative narratives offer an alternative understanding of the narratives released by extremist groups aiming at delegitimising the violence aspect within a group’s ideology. Within the alternative method the messenger, i.e. the person/group delivering the alternative message must retain a high level of legitimacy within the intended recipients. In the case of takfir-salfist jihadist, Imams and other Islamic religious leaders may condemn the fatwa’s produced by the Islamic State and produce fatwa’s condemning violence by drawing references from the Quran. More so, the experiences and knowledge of former members of right-wing extremism  has proven to be an effective method for engaging the target audience in preventative discussions. This type of messenger is also gaining traction as a deterrent in jihadist recruitment. The third counter-narrative method is the development of media- and information knowledge and critical thinking amongst youth. This tactic is particularly popular in the Nordic countries. However, despite the new databases, knowledge centres and support for counter-narratives, there is little to no evidence supporting the effectiveness of direct counter-narrative campaigns as part of a radicalization prevention strategy. Rather than acting as a preventative measure the removal of extremist content online, which is a common aspect of counter-narrative campaigns, and messages directly targeting extremist content, are dependent on the publication and distribution of extremist propaganda. Therefore the method is heavily reliant on extremist groups, rather that setting its own preventative agenda.

Another problem facing current preventative campaigns is the difficulty in measuring their success. Security details will always be able to measure the amount of casualties in terrorist attacks and the figures regarding the roughly 30 000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have been waved across most international media outlets. The amount of individuals who have not been radicalized is intangible, and existing measurement tools are inadequate. However, leading actors within counter-narratives such as the British think-tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue are developing instruments for measuring counter-narratives outreach. Nevertheless, measuring likes, comments and shares on social media will not highlight the amount of individuals that have not become radicalized.

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Excerpt from ‘Al Qaeda’ in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine ‘Inspire’. It highlights that the method of radicalising online has been widely adopted.

Although current research paints a gloomy picture for those encouraging counter-narrative campaigns, those promoting alternative narratives and media- and information education have a more positive outlook. Research in the Netherlands, the United States, and the UK, has pointed towards the potential that alternative narratives may be developed as part of complete anti-radicalization campaign. More so, the application of media and information education in youth is likely to develop the critical thinking amongst a state’s citizens, in turn making them more resilient to anti-democratic narratives.

There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to countering radicalization and recruitment to violence promoting extremist groups. However, by combining preventative measures with deterrent methods, which are known as soft vs. tough methods, it is possible to create a long- and short-term strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism. In this, the internet remains an important battleground.

Eric Hartshorne will be back next month with his editorial asking if either Soft or Tough methods of countering radicalisation are more effective. For Eric’s article on the history of terrorism, click here.

The Euroculturer Recommends:

“What does it means to be a European citizen? The realities of EU citizenship and the nationalism problem of Europe” by Elizabete Skrastina

“Scotland – are you ready for more? Scotland on course for second independence vote after Brexit.” by Emily Burt

“Little Europe in Bengal: Contemporary trends in conservation” by Arnab Dutta

The European Parliament as a space for discussion

The European Parliament offers a space for dialogue to politicians with different backgrounds and perspectives. It provides a forum for them to debate constructively their ideas, because they have to work together within a common group.

Paul2_The European Parliament Chamber
The European Parliament Chamber

Paul-gilbert Colletaz│paul.colletaz@gmail.com

The European Union (EU) consists of different cultures, countries, nations and languages. It is diverse and this diversity reflects the multitude of political systems, working in accordance with their own rules and regulations.

France, for instance, is a unitary semi-presidential republic. Indeed, in contrast to a federation pulling together different political units and a federal government coupled with more local governments (like Germany or the United States of America), France has one constitution effective across its entire territory. It is semi-presidential because the President shares her or his power with the Prime Minister.

The United Kingdom (UK), in comparison, despite being also a unitary state, is a Constitutional monarchy. Currently, its head of state is Queen Elizabeth II and the country is governed under a body of laws,  and not a constitution. To complicate things, the process of devolution gave Scotland its own Parliament, and Northern Ireland and Wales their own Assemblies.

“For example, a unitary semi-presidential republic and a Constitutional monarchy exist together in the EU…”

Several national political parties, classified according to their positions on economic and social issues, can be gathered in European-wide political groups.  Currently and until the next European Parliament election in 2014, nine different political groups are present in the EU Parliament.

A strategic choice must be made: national parties must decide whether their elected Members of the European Parliaments (MEPs) should join a European political group in order to gain size, supporters and votes. If they do not, the MEPs fall into the Non-Attached Members, the ninth political group – marginal and therefore often more boisterous.

Thus, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group is presently made up of the Party of European Socialists and three unaffiliated national parties.  Within the Party of European Socialists, the French Socialist Party and the British Labour Party work together.

French culture is famous for its anti-Americanism. The word liberalism in the XIXth century was used to refer to the Orléanist movement wishing for the return of a monarchy after the French Revolution. Given that the 14th July is the French National Day associated with the storming of the Bastille, and consequently the Revolution and the end of the monarchy, it is clear that ‘liberal’ had negative connotations for the majority of the French population.

“It was no surprise when De Gaulle vetoed the entrance of the UK into the EU…”

This mind-set surely influenced modern French politics, and it was no surprise when De Gaulle vetoed the entrance of the UK into the EU both in 1963 and  1967, describing the UK as ‘America’s Trojan horse’ and thus hinting atthe indirect entrance of liberal American ideas.

Last week, coming back from work, I was reading the Metro in the tube. Non-surprisingly, I stumbled across a Eurosceptic article. It presented the EU project to introduce a tax on financial transactions, and the EU proposal to cap bonuses paid to bankers to 100% of their base salary (or 200% if shareholders approve):the article referred to both as ‘stupid’.

On that very same day, a French company moving its headquarters to London did not allow my work division to publish an article on the matter. The former knew that if this information came out publicly, the French media and the majority of the public opinion in France would strongly criticise that move, immediately assuming it must have been motivated by the wish to pay less taxes.

Two visions – worlds apart.

It has often been repeated that there is no major left-wing party in British politics. On the other hand, despite criticisms from French voters over the centrist or rightist policies the French government has put into place since its election, the French Socialist Party is a left-wing party in the country where education is free.

Queen Elizabeth II (left) and Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix(1830)
Queen Elizabeth II (left) and Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix(1830)

All this gives us insight into why it is hard, at first, to imagine the French Socialist Party and the British Labour Party working together in one group.

Yet, the Party of European Socialists is what the European Parliament provides.

“The European Parliament offers a space for dialogue…”

The European Parliament offers a space for dialogue (as opposed to criticisms and condemnations) to politicians with different backgrounds and perspectives. It provides a forum for them to debate constructively their ideas, because they have to work together within a common group.

It is clear that petty criticisms based on the form of the debate rather than  its content exist in EU politics.Nevertheless, this happens much less than in national politics, due to the scale of EU politics and its diversity forces for cooperation and discussion.

My European Union, through one of its legislative bodies: the European Parliament, theoretically allows 377 MEP, 9 different European-wide groups representing more than 100 national political parties to express themselves and thus as many different inputs and ideas.

Paul new profilePaul-gilbert Colletaz, Contributing Writer & Columnist 

Paul is from France and graduated in British and American Literatures, Civilisations and Linguistics from the Sorbonne (Paris) spending the last year of his undergraduate diploma in Edinburgh, Scotland. A Euroculture student from September 2011 to July 2013, he studied at the Universities of Strasbourg (France), Udine (Italy) and Pune (India). He is curently working at the French Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain as Publications and Communications Assistant. His interests go from EU politics and Franco-British relations to Scottish Civilisation and Gender Studies.